Dating back to their December 18th game against the Timberwolves, the Trail Blazers are only 5-5 (.500) in their past ten games. Before this rough stretch, they were 22-4 (.846) on the season. As I watched this run of games, the Blazers’ defense appeared to be slipping towards the “atrocious” end of the spectrum, rather than “acceptable,” where it had been earlier in the season.
My eyes did not deceive me, and upon crunching the numbers, I was actually shocked to see the defensive disparity. During that 22-4 start, the Blazers were allowing 101.2 points per game. I had anticipated a sharp increase in opponent scoring (maybe 3 or 4 points a game), but I was floored to see the number jump over six full points, to 107.3 points allowed per game.
While ten games is not the largest sample size, it’s large enough that this massive six point jump is cause for worry, especially since the drop in defense seems to be having a direct correlation on the team’s wins. Some nights it looks like the Blazers’ opponent is running a layup drill out there, and if the Blazers are allowing 107.3 points per game, they may as well be.
There is no better game to illustrate how much a porous defense can cost the Trail Blazers than their January 7th outing against the Kings. Portland as a team scored 119 points, Damian Lillard scored 41 in a career night, and LaMarcus Aldridge chipped in 24 himself. Yet, the Blazers still lost – namely because they gave up 123 points. Under no circumstances should a team score 119 points and have one of their star players go off for 41, and still lose. That level of defense just won’t cut it.
The Blazers’ strength is obviously offense, so it’s not entirely fair to expect an elite defense – especially since the personnel is lacking. An average defense paired with an elite offense (best in the league!) is certainly a recipe for success, but when the Blazers defense instead turns opponents into elite offenses, their own offense will sometimes have trouble keeping up (like against the Kings).
Now, most Blazers fans will tell you that their goal for the team going into the season was to make the playoffs, and I am certainly included in this group. While I would never advocate putting a cap on the team’s expected success, or expect a team to only be happy with that, this original goal is worth bearing in mind.
If everything plays out as it has been, yes, the Blazers will make the playoffs. If they want to advance, though, it will come down to their defense. Allowing 107 points a game is almost a surefire recipe for a first-round exit, something that I think this team and fan base would find disappointing.
Playing defense is almost entirely predicated on a team effort, rather than an individual one, however, so there is hope. It will come down to Head Coach Terry Stotts and his ability to fix or fine-tune his defensive system, because whatever has been going on during the last ten games hasn’t been working. Stotts has generally been known as a tactician, so I would like to see him strategize his way into at least an average defense. If the team does this, which I know it is capable of, then their chance of making some noise in the playoffs skyrockets.